What can you tell me about your upbringing?
I grew up in a Chicago suburb—you know, pretty lonely. There wasn’t a city. There weren’t a lot of people around, and so I ended up making a lot of friends on the Internet and getting involved. I learned to program and when I was in sixth or seventh grade got involved in building Web standards and began working with Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the Web.
I really got to see the thing from the inside and understand how the technology works. After that I went on to found Reddit, which is an online news website that would have been threatened by these bills. It was clear to me that no one else was going to be able to see or explain these issues the way I was—to understand how it affected technology, how it would affect business, and also to have some idea of a way to stop it politically.
Are your beliefs shaped by the Internet itself, by things you read there? What were the strongest influences?
It’s a little hard to put a finger on what one’s influences were. My parents aren’t particularly political. I would say they’re slightly left of center. My dad was a software entrepreneur, so that’s why we had the Internet very early on. I had a computer since the day I was born. It was a part of my life growing up. Over the dinner table we had a culture discussion and debate. I came from a family that prided itself on talking and taking different positions because it forces people to think.
When I surfed on the Internet, and even to this day, the technology community has a very techno-libertarian view: “If we just get the government out of the way and let everyone write software, everything will be fine.” I read a lot of that, but I was never persuaded by it. I’m pretty far from being a libertarian. More than anything, it’s a personality quirk of mine of just having an incredible sense of empathy for people. I knew I needed to help people. I think the technology community often lacks a sense of empathy.
Do you feel any empathy toward the Hollywood middlemen the Internet is putting out of business?
I know it’s got to be hard, and I’m totally empathetic for them as people. But empathy has to be tempered with a sense of perspective about doing the most good for the most people. It’s a logic that says, okay, yes, there is a handful of rich people who are going to be hurt, and that’s unfortunate. I think the Internet is the thing that is going to change their industry, and it’s a little too late to stop the Internet now.
What are your goals for 2012 and beyond?
We’ve seen this enormous sense among people that they are capable of making a difference over the Internet. I think that feeling of collective efficacy is incredibly powerful. What I am doing now is I’m exploring different ways to capitalize on that with social structures and technological tools to help people organize.
The rest of my life is to figure out what can be built to give people ways to change the way their lives are structured. I think there’s a consensus for most people everywhere in the world about the way they want things to be. They want climate change to end, they want people lifted out of poverty, and they want to stop corruption. And I think the Internet provides a way to make this happen.